Food Policy

Beef Goes Upscale

Can the small-batch foodie revolution transform the red meat market?


At the Belcampo Meat Company in Larkspur, California, the primary merchandise is presented almost as fetishistically as the iPhones at an Apple store. Sirloin tip cutlets, whole rabbits, Chateaubriands, and a dozen or so other varieties of raw meat rest on white platters lined with brown butcher paper. Lemons and bundles of rosemary serve as understated but striking visual sidekicks. The intended effect: plenitude, judiciously curated.

In the meat department of the average supermarket, by contrast, plastic-wrapped packs of econo-beef are herded onto crowded shelves, pressed up indiscriminately against giant value-sacks of boneless chicken. It's cruel and unappetizing. But at Belcampo, the tenderloin filets have room to roam.

In addition to Belcampo's Larkspur location, which includes a casual restaurant along with the meat boutique, the company operates its own farm and slaughterhouse about 300 miles to the north, near the Oregon border. There, on rolling grasslands with a view of Mt. Shasta, future cutlets and filets grow to certified organic maturity in an environment that sounds nearly as nurturing as a top-flight preschool. "We practice low-stress animal handling techniques, respecting each species' innate mental and emotional characteristics," Belcampo's website advises. "We pay special attention to each breed's ability to thrive in Northern California, creating homes for our swine and poultry that allow them to be both comfortable and stimulated."

Belcampo, in other words, is a carefully crafted antidote to meat's image as a highly industrialized foodstuff with no provenance whatsoever, a.k.a. pink slime. It owns and operates every link in its production chain and thus can exercise maximum control over its processes and ensure customers maximum transparency as it aims to deliver pink prime—healthier, kindlier, more sustainable meat. 

Respecting the innate mental and emotional characteristics of the highly sensitive Northern California consumer, Belcampo regularly trucks in its farmers to Larkspur for lunchtime eat-and-greets, where they are subjected to intensive but ostensibly humane grilling from ethical carnivores hungry for a deeper connection to their burgers. 

Such tactics are hardly novel at this point, at least in Marin County. What distinguishes Belcampo is the seamlessness and ambitious reach of its vision. Founder Anya Fernald, a veteran foodie who has worked as a baker, chef, and cheesemaker and spent four years at Italy's Slow Food International, wants to take ethical and sustainable animal husbandry beyond farmers markets and community-supported agriculture programs, to make it as mainstream as McDonald's (if not quite so widespread). Over the next six months, Fernald plans to open five more retail outlets throughout California. 

"Right now, 80 percent of my target consumers are shopping in mainstream channels," she says. "Our business is about making it easier and easier for someone to switch from Costco to our store."

The location of Belcampo's initial Larkspur outlet clearly reflects this ambition—it's set in an outdoor shopping mall, in close proximity to a Bed, Bath & Beyond. But this progressive ideal does not come cheaply. At Belcampo's butcher shop, the tenderloin filet goes for $39 per pound—roughly $32 more per pound than what USDA Choice sirloin steak averages in U.S. supermarkets, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates for April 2013.

For most of the 20th century a juicy steak represented a more populist ideal. Just as surely as a Cadillac in the driveway and a pool in the backyard, it embodied increasingly widespread prosperity. It was a luxury, yes, but it was egalitarian and broadly accessible, the fat of the land commoditized for easy, generic purchase in supermarkets everywhere. Beef required no great expertise to prepare. It demanded no sophisticated connoisseurship to fully appreciate.

It was a meal fit for suburban kings, and for a while there our appetite for the stuff was as insatiable as our demand for gasoline and television. In 1952, annual beef consumption per capita was 61.2 pounds. By 1975, it had reached 88.5 pounds. In 1976—helped in part, no doubt, by millions of bicentennial barbecues—beef consumption hit its highest level ever, at 94.4 pounds.

But that was it, peak sirloin. In 2012, we ate only 57.3 pounds of beef per person. By 2014, forecasters suggest, we're likely to be down to 53 pounds.

What happened? In part, beef consumption is driven by beef supply, and for various reasons supply went down. Today, beef industry pundits attribute slumping sales to higher production costs, growing exports, and drought, among other factors.

But consumer preferences clearly shifted as well. In 1976, obesity rates were starting their rapid ascent, but we were also beginning to pay considerable attention to our cholesterol counts. Cheaper alternatives such as chicken and pork claimed a larger share of the market. Add E. coli outbreaks, mad cow disease, and a growing awareness over the ethical ramifications and environmental consequences of factory farming, and eventually the industry faced a massive marketing challenge. 

In the heyday of the American steak, innovations in production and distribution drove the beef industry. It developed ways to grow cattle faster and increase meat yields per animal. It streamlined supply chains by shifting slaughterhouse operations from urban centers to rural locations nearer to feedlots. Most of the branding the industry did, however, involved a red-hot iron. 

At precisely the same time Americans started losing their appetite for beef, they started expressing an interest in connoisseurship, novelty, authenticity, exclusivity. A nation raised on iceberg lettuce and Budweiser acquired a taste for arugula and Carneros District Cabernets. Beef desperately needed a new story, and yet for the most part, beef stayed beef: abundant, uniform, a stubborn holdover from an era when TVs had a dozen channels and potato chips came in one flavor.

In recent years, the four packers that dominate the industry have attempted to create more proprietary marketing for their products, especially for Angus beef, the one breed that has achieved what might be called varietal status. In general, though, beef has yet to shake its mass-market past.

That's a bit surprising, because in many ways beef should be the ultimate artisanal heritage product. It's rustic. It's bound in leather. Bearded people are frequently involved in its production. And yet instead of embracing ways to make cow meat more exclusive and tasteful, the beef industry mostly wants to keep it cheap and plentiful. "We can't let beef turn into lobster," Ed Greiman, president of the Iowa Cattlemen's Association, lamented to the Des Moines Register in February.

Enter Belcampo. "The style of production that I'm committed to, from an ethical and environmental perspective, is definitely the most expensive style of production out there," Fernald says. "But doing the right thing for the animals also yields a higher taste quality."

This is a point of contention. The grain-based finishing diets that cattle eat in feedlots is what gives today's beef its marbled texture and tender juiciness, and this, many traditionalists insist, is what consumers want (even as they buy less and less beef). 

In contrast, pastured, grass-fed beef is sometimes described as gamey. "We've been taught to think of meat as the tofu of the land," Fernald counters. "It's a flavorless substrate for satay sauce or teriyaki marinade. The only beef we eat straight up is steak, and even it's got butter on it, or steak sauce. At Belcampo, we're trying to get people to rediscover the flavor of meat. Our beef is very flavor-forward."

Not so long ago, the beer aisles of America's supermarkets were filled with little more than a handful of bland, homogenous brands. The same was true of the bread aisles. Then brewers and bakers began making declarations similar to Fernald's. Beer could be more flavorful. Bread could be healthier and more complex. Over time, as America's consumers developed easier and more widespread access to cream stouts and sprouted whole grain breads, they embraced these options. Their expectations grew. 

Today's most demanding shoppers don't just want tasty food. They want tasteful food. Jam that's so beautiful it's worthy of an Instagram close-up. Politically enlightened pickles. Statement broccoli that serves as a medium for self-expression as well as sustenance. 

Belcampo charges more for its beef (in some cases, a lot more). But it also expands consumer options in new and intriguing ways. If you're in the mood for a burger topped with environmental sustainability and ethical slaughter, there is now a place at the mall where you can have it your way.  

NEXT: American Manufacturing Resurgence Stalls

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  1. The plastic wrapped around beef is to make sure the flavor germs can’t escape. I’ll pass on the open air cuts, thank you very much.

    1. Fist’s Germ Theory of Flavour

      I think you’ve got a Nobel prize coming your way (it might only be a Peace Prize though…so plebian)

      1. And we all know what winners of the Nobel Peace Prize get to do.

        1. I’m fairly certain FoE is killing brown people wantonly in his basement anyway. Giving him drone capabilities probably won’t make it all that much worse.

          1. My basement is so full of junk right now you can barely move. If brown people want killed down there they’re going to have to move some boxes first. I’m pretty sure I have a pool table buried under there somewhere.

            1. My basement is so full of junk right now you can barely move. If brown people want killed down there they’re going to have to move some boxes first. I’m pretty sure I have a pool table buried under there somewhere.

              Is what Fist tells the day laborers to lure them into his basement, where he kills them.

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  2. Just finished Jayson Lusk’s The Food Police: A Well-Fed Manifesto About the Politics of Your Plate. He’s skeptical about whether boutique meat actually tastes any better, or whether it’s just the latest version of yuppie trendiness. Makes a pretty good case against the locavore movement on exactly those grounds, although it’s a little overwritten.

    1. Well, grass fed and grain fed do taste different. And the way the animal lives has some effect too. But whether one way is better is a matter of taste.

    2. It’s nothing more than status-driven conspicuous consumption with the added benefit of getting to feel self-righteous. It’s an intoxicating and heady brew.

      1. It’s nothing more than status-driven conspicuous consumption with the added benefit of getting to feel self-righteous. It’s an intoxicating and heady brew.

        I have a very yuppie friend whose wife won’t eat beef unless it’s kobe beef or grass-fed beef. She got very confused when I pointed out that if the benefits of grass-feeding is true (and it is certainly plausible), then kobe beef would be the worst for you in the world.

  3. Despite the explosion in craft breweries, artisanal breads and cheese, high quality American wines, small batch bourbons, etc., the big (sometimes bland) brands still dominate the market because they are cheaper and easier to find. The same will be true of meat. I suspect a lot of people could find a craft beer that they like better than Budweiser, but are they willing to invest the time and effort in doing so, and to then pay more? Evidently not. And that is OK. The only reason it might not be is because of issues of animal cruelty, but that is a tough issue to tackle.

  4. I raise Scotch Highland beef, largely replacement and show stock, but occasionally will consider finishing steers for the table. This trend in grass fed beef is puzzling but who am I to refuse cash? If some yuppie fuck wants venison, I’ll sell him venison.

    All you have to do to experience grass fed beef is try to gut down what passes for a burger in Europe. You’ll get a better understanding why they eat less beef, and then only in a meat pie mixed with other shit.

    1. This trend in grass fed beef is puzzling but who am I to refuse cash? If some yuppie fuck wants venison, I’ll sell him venison.
      When you feed cows, do they turn into deer? Have you told the Nobel Prize committee about this?

      1. What is a deer? A herbivore who grazes AND browses. What is a “grass fed” steer? A herbivore who grazes AND browses. You’re the cattle wizard, you tell me.

        The only difference is I don’t shoot the fucking steer after chasing him into a lather, gut him in the field amongst the flies and ticks, and drag his sorry ass through the mud and dirt to butcher him.

        1. What is a deer? A herbivore who grazes AND browses. What is a “grass fed” steer? A herbivore who grazes AND browses. You’re the cattle wizard, you tell me.

          “Herbivore who” makes you sound like some kind of vegetarian activist.

          “Browsing” refers to eating bark, stems and leaves of woody plants, which would not appear to meet the criteria of “grass fed.” Besides, one look at their scat would demonstrate clear differences between how the two species’ metabolisms work. Having eaten a lot of venison, and a fair amount of grass-fed beef, I can attest they are quite dissimilar.

          The only difference is I don’t shoot the fucking steer after chasing him into a lather, gut him in the field amongst the flies and ticks, and drag his sorry ass through the mud and dirt to butcher him.

          Chase a deer? Especially before shooting him? I’m old and gimpy, but when I drop a deer, if the deer isn’t dead before he knows anything about it, I consider the shot a failure.

          There are more flies at a slaughterhouse than when I hang and butcher a carcass myself, either venison or beef. Hell, you should see all the bugs going everywhere when harvesting a field.

          Also, I have always used a dragging tarp or a cart. No carcass of mine has ever been dragged through mud or dirt. While I believe it’s more sanitary, the big reason to me is a bare carcass would catch on every passing bit of underbrush.

    2. Some people like grass fed beef. I do. And the beef I have had in Europe has been quite good. In fact, the best hamburger I have ever had was in England. Who woudl have thought?

      1. Two words here. Horse Meat.

        1. Had it. Liked it. Thought it tasted pretty much like a good cut of beef.

          1. Just so you know, the horse was most likely “finished”, probably up to 15 pounds of cracked corn a day for two months.

          2. I’m disappointed we didn’t get around to a Horse Burger joint in Slovenia.

    3. The only part of Europe I’ve ever been to is Ireland, and the beef there was delicious. Here in the U.S., I rarely eat grain-fed beef, but when I do, it’s consistently disappointing. There just isn’t much there there.

      Most of my friends have tried grassfed beef, and most prefer it. But not everyone prefers it. Those don’t like grassfed always say it’s too gamey. Of course, they don’t like lamb, either, which I think is delicious.

  5. Yeah, there’s a difference in the taste of grass-fed vs. grain fed beef. I buy dry-aged grass-fed on purpose. It has actual flavor to it. Once you get spoiled by eating beef that actually tastes like cow, the bland grocery-store stuff is a poor substitute. I guess that’s why A-1 is so popular.

    It does cost more though. I pay maybe $750 for 1/4 cow, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 lbs meat plus a pretty sizeable amount of organs and bones. Watching my dog tear apart a giant cow heart is pretty great.

    1. Gotta love the gelatin from liver and kidneys. Bones also help make nutritious broth.

      1. Bone broth makes a great cooking ingredient too!

  6. “…But this progressive ideal does not come cheaply.”
    Has there ever been, in the history of mankind, a progressive ideal that did come cheap?

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  9. What this article fails to mention are the blind taste tests that have occurred as well as the nutritional differences between grass-fed and grain-fed/feed lot beef. There a broad gaps between the two and you also must consider the breed of cow you are grass-feeding versus Grain/Corn. As a farmer and breeder of cattle I only grass feed now (much easier than having to go out and feed everyday)and have switched from Angus to a heritage Scottish Highland Cow..The Galloway.

    Article on Nutrition: “”
    My Farm for those looking for beef:

    1. I’m going to call a mini foul here. Citing an article shaded to prefer low fat “natural” food intake is a bit soft.

      Here’s a thought. I’ve grass fed beef and I’ve finished beef. It’s cheaper, by a bit, to eschew the grain, particularly with $10 corn, and let the steer finish on grass. My Highlands are exceptionally fit for such treatment, and will deliver a great carcass. Inasmuch as it is cheaper (aside from the fact KiminGa is actually paying a premium for it), and according to your article the taste of unfinished beef is sublime, why do you suppose all that supermarket beef (in fact 98% of all beef sold and consumed) is “finished”, at a greater cost to the producer and thus a lesser profit to big beef ag??

      1. I suspect the dominance of corn-fed beef isn’t due to taste, but to consistency and ease of cooking. Grassfed has more flavor, but the flavor can vary significantly. I imagine there is some variation in the flavor of corn-fed, but it is certainly much more consistent.

        So much of the beef in the country goes through the fast food system, where flavor is not a top priority. It’s no different from chicken, where boneless skinless breasts and chicken nuggets dominate. Those certainly aren’t the most flavorful way to eat chicken, but they are consistent and easy to make.

        1. I think corn-feeding’s popularity is partly due to grain subsidies.

          The most flavorful chicken comes from letting them out to eat all the bugs they can find. We don’t usually slaughter our chickens, but the eggs our hens lay are small but very rich. The yolks are downright orange and stand tall and round in the pan.

          1. Of course grain subsidies played a huge role in the growth of corn-fed beef (and factory farming of animals). The cheaper it is, the more attractive it is.

            As for eggs, we don’t slaughter our chickens at all. We don’t have to pay for fertilizer or soil amendments (the chickens take care of that) or pesticides/herbicides/fungicides (the chickens eat bugs, weeds, and fungi). So even the chickens who don’t lay eggs are valuable. But the eggs we get are ridiculously orange (pumpkin-y, I’d say) and our customers love them.

  10. These folks certainly picked the right area to defraud. Exactly how is it possible for beef to NOT be sustainable?

  11. location, which includes a casual restaurant along with the

  12. Sirloin tip cutlets, whole rabbits, Chateaubriands, and a dozen or so other varieties

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